Cassandra, Greek fires and the power of artificial intelligence

Firemen attempt to extinguish a fire in Nea Anchialo, Greece

Firemen attempt to extinguish a fire in Nea Anchialos, near Greek mainland city of Volos, on July 27, 2023.

Photo credit: Courtesy | AFP

First, there was the “Cassandran” (largely unheeded) prophecy that environmental irresponsibility would land us in trouble. Now the fires are burning in the heart of the world, between Europe, Asia and Africa.

There is also the rising phenomenon of artificial intelligence (AI) and the growing unease about it. Can “humanistics”, the scientific study of humanity, provide some solutions to the new (AI) world order?

This is the whirl or whirlwind of thoughts rattling my mind this week, and I invite you to join me in searching through them and seeing if we can make some constructive sense of them and usefully relate them to our experiences.

Needless to say, the thoughts are triggered by current happenings around us, and I am trying to find some kind of pattern or relationships among them. Our great scholarly ancestor, and my Makerere graduate studies director in the late 1960s, Ali Mazrui, defined an intellectual as a person who is fascinated by ideas and has acquired the skills to handle some of those ideas effectively

Our first trigger, as hinted above, is the tragic spate of forest fires raging in many Mediterranean lands and the islands adjacent to them.

The fires have already forced hundreds, maybe thousands, of would-be summer holidaymakers to abandon their favourite haunts in Greece and elsewhere in the region and flee to safer places.

An apt pointer to the need for serious thought here is that the Mediterranean fires are neither an isolated geographical incident nor the first of their kind in recent years.

Earlier this year, Eastern Canada exploded into an inferno of forest fires, so bad that their effects were felt in the neighbouring United States.

The US itself is, of course, no stranger to the same phenomenon, as instanced in the Californian wild fires of 2018, which, among other locations, virtually wiped out the symbolically named city of Paradise.

At the other end of the world, between June 2019 and January 2020, bushfires roasted an estimated 46 million acres of the Australian continent.

These are no longer “freak” happenings, but almost predictable events related to what is euphemistically called “climate change”, and fires are only one aspect of the disasters.

Catastrophic floods, extremely prolonged droughts (in the Horn of Africa we have just had the worst in 40 years) and maybe the emergence of hitherto unheard-of diseases, all these can be traced to climate change, which is itself largely the result of our irresponsibility and delinquency towards the environment. Conservationists, activists and other right-thinking people, the Wangari Mathais of this world, have for decades now been pleading with us to stop behaving in ways that will either destroy our world or wipe us off its face, but are we listening?

If we are listening, are we, as you and me, doing anything to lead to positive change? Some people think that even talking about these things is “boring”.

We in Literature no longer think so. This is why many of us are creating environmentally explicit works, like Senator Omtatah’s Voice of the People, or the late Francis Imbuga’s Green Cross of Kafira, and my own Shimo Katika Anga (A Hole in the Sky). We even have a critical theory, called “ecocriticism”, dealing with environmental awareness in texts.

I mentioned earlier the current environmental challenges of Greece and its environs. This reminds me of Cassandra, who was a princess of Troy.

She was a remarkably intelligent woman, gifted by Apollo, the deity of prophecy, with the ability to predict the future with absolute accuracy. But she fell out with Apollo when she turned down his demands for intimacy, and the enraged deity cursed her with the malediction that no one would ever believe her prophecies.

Anyway, the Cassandra story has passed into popular parlance. People who accurately predict the future but are not heeded or believed are called Cassandras.

As an optimist, I fervently hope that those who warn about the dangers of environmental degradation will not end up being Cassandras. I trust that humanity will, just in time, listen to the warning voices of reason, do the needful and save the world and themselves from extinction.

The same goes for the current over-glorification of the physical sciences, of which artificial intelligence (AI) is a part, at the expense of the human sciences.

Basically, artificial intelligence is the mechanical simulation of human understanding functions by machines, especially computers. These machines are programmed to carry out such functions as expert calculations, language processing and machine vision.

These are obviously useful and desirable operations, and when they are coupled with robotics, which have been with us for a long time, they can be of tremendous value to human beings.

Fears and reservations, however, are already being expressed about the limitations of AI. Among these are the absence of qualities like feeling, imagination and empathy in AI systems.

This means that any AI system is only as efficient as its creator and programmer wants it to be or is capable of making it.

A “chatbox” may be able to give a million answers to questions in a particular way. But it will probably be incapable of answering even the simplest supplementary question that was not programmed into it.

Even more disturbing is the possibility of “glitching” or malfunctioning of an AI device or system, or even downright malicious programming. What, for example, would happen if the AI system of a driverless vehicle were to glitch in the middle of a traffic jam? These may sound like simplistic qualms but they should guide us towards more fundamental and necessary considerations.

AI is irreversible in its progress, and it is hugely useful, but it is useful only in so far as it enhances our humanity and our relationships. If it begins to limit or threaten our existence or growth, it becomes undesirable.

In any case, the output of AI will depend on what we put into it, and that input should be ideally and primarily humanity.

If you doubt me, ask the Chat AI GPT.

- Prof Bukenya is a leading East African scholar of English and [email protected]